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Early Debates about the Gospel of Peter

This is the second of my two posts on the Gospel of Peter, and in some ways it is the more important one.  Here I talk about what we knew about the Gospel, before it was discovered, from the writings of the ancient church fathers.  One of these discussions in particular will provide us with the information I’m heading for, of why the Gospel was not accepted into the canon of the New Testament.  (It shows only a single instance of a debate about it, but the terms of the debate are instructive.)

These comments come from the “Introduction” to the Gospel that I wrote for the new translation and edition of the early apocryphal Gospels, that I produced with my colleague Zlatko Plese.


The third-century Origen is the first patristic author to mention a Gospel allegedly written by Jesus’ disciple Simon Peter.  Origen indicates that the book may have spoken of Jesus’ “brothers” as sons of Joseph from a previous marriage (Commentary on Matthew 10.17).  It is not clear that Origen had actually read the book: nothing that we now know indicates that any such story was in it, and Origen also states that the information may instead have come from a “book of James”–presumably a reference to what is now called the Proto-Gospel of James, a book that does identify Jesus’ brothers in this way.  The next church father to mention a Gospel of Peter is the fourth-century “father of church history,” Eusebius, who twice numbers the book among writings not accepted by the church as Scripture (Church History, 3. 3. 2; 3. 25. 6).  On one other occasion, Eusebius discusses the book at some length, in order to show why it had been excluded from consideration from the canon.

The story involves Serapion, a …

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  1. Avatar
    doug  November 18, 2018

    If the account of Bishop Serapion sanctioning the use of the Gospel of Peter *sight unseen* is accurate, it makes me wonder how easily (and perhaps wrongly) some Christian writings were accepted as being accurate in the early centuries of Christianity.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 18, 2018

    This post about “Docetism” reminds me that I am now reading “Why Religion” by Elaine Pagels. This is a terrific book and I highly recommend it to readers of this blog,. My favorite books and blogs, by far, are those that combine religious/Bible scholarship with a personal religious journey. Maybe the publisher of her book would be interested in an Ehrman religious autobiography.

  3. Avatar
    Machtige Henk  November 19, 2018

    Dear Bart, a question unrelated to this topic. Some people over here in my country, argue that the texts about same-sex relations (especially 1Cor 6:9-10 and Romans 1:26) are about unequal relations and wide spread orgies and temple prostitution that are thought to be prevalent in the countries they were written, while others argue that these texts are about all same-sex relations, even those of loving and faithful same-sex relationships.
    Is it true that these so-called orgies and temple prostitution were prevalent in those days? Do you think the Paul wrote against these practices, or did he think all same-sex relations were bad?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2018

      Orgies were probably not much more frequent then than now. It’s a very complicated question of why same-sex relations were often (not always) condemned, but these reasons are not the same as those used today; they actaully relate to the ideas about the nature of gendered relationships (what makes males males and females females). Too hard to explain in a comment on a blog, but if you’re interested, you can get a taste for the issue in the chapter on women in early Christainity in my NT textbook.

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